orWine Tastings in the Comfort of you own villa or B&B while on holiday in Tuscany or Liguria

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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Of slimming, beer and mushrooms

The perfect slimming plan! Guaranteed to work.
Step 1: Base your diet mostly around potatoes. You can do with them what you like, boil them, fry them, eat them as mash or gnocchi or whatever else.
Step 2: Grow your own potatoes. Choose a plot some 25 km away from your home, preferably up a hill. Only ever cycle to this plot. Turn an uncultivated stretch of this land over with a spade prior to planting your potatoes, then plant them.
Step 3: After a few months come back and dig over the plot again to retrieve your potatoes. The calories you have expended on growing the potatoes are roughly equal to the calories you take in from consuming them.
Step 3 ½: If you are feeling particularly energetic, you can come a few times in between to weed, water (carrying the water up a few terraces from a nearby river) and earth up around the plants. This will increase your crop, but of course also involve further expenditure of calories.
As you can see here we were out potato digging in Villa today, cycling back with over 10 kg of spuds on the back of my bike, which is particular fun coming back up our hill… Mushroom season has also started in earnest. Around us it’s still to dry, but in Villa we found a good crop of chanterelles last week. Today we found a good handful of little brown button-like mushrooms, which I haven’t actually identified, but I had thrown a couple in last time with the chanterelles and we’re still alive. We also found two beautiful porcini. So we’ll have a lovely mushroom dinner.
This evening we also decided to test my home-made maize beer. As you can see it’s a bit cloudy, but it has a distinct hoppy aroma from the wild hops we picked and a nice dry finish. It actually tastes of beer despite the fact that it hasn’t seen any barley. Alcohol content is about 5% AbV. I only made an experimental 3 litre batch, but shall try a larger amount next time.

Finally the festa on Sunday got pretty much rained off. There was a poetry reading in the small community centre in the village, but the concert was called off. They had actually lugged up this huge concert piano up to outside our house. Anybody who has ever visited us knows how many steps this involves. They just covered it up against the rain and collected it again the next day. We did have a little private festa in our kitchen though. The pianist and two lost Swedish tourists came down for a glass of wine. We had the Swedish couple over for dinner even. They weren’t actually lost. Elin and Martin were on their holiday and, looking on the internet, found themselves a little B&B just outside our village. It turned out a jolly evening.

Sunday, 21 September 2008


Well here we are again. Sunday seems to be the day for blog updates. As announced last weekend, autumn has definitely arrived. Cooler sunny days are interrupted by rainy ones and showers. Today we got drenched on our bikes on our way home from Arcola. Friday we hardly left the house although it did dry up in the afternoon. Many of our neighbours have begun their grape harvests. Our vines in Villa have yet again succumbed to disease and not produced anything of note. The vines we planted last year are of course not producing yet, but they mostly seem to have survived the dry summer. I shall help our friend and neighbour Carlo with his grape harvest at the beginning of October. Modern wine producers measure the best time to pick their grapes by monitoring sugar and acid contents on a daily basis, but Carlo uses the scientific method of “my son, who likes helping with the vendemmia, comes back from holiday on the 3rd October; that’s when we’ll harvest.” Harvesting that late for exclusively white wines made from Vermentino means he produces quite alcoholic wines with low acidity. I’m having a glass of his wine from last year as I write this.

We still carry large crops back from our land, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, apples and beans today. Something I don’t think I have mentioned is that we have had our daily handful of strawberries since May until now. Never enough at any one time to make jam out of or even bother carrying home, but just enough to pop them into your mouth whenever we are in Arcola.

The festa season is coming towards the end. Tonight there is the annual event in honour of Ponzano Superiore’s most famous son, Cesare Orsini. I’ve been trying to find out a bit more about the man on the internet, but clearly his fame has not spread widely beyond his home town. All I could find out was that the man lived in Ponzano between 1571 to possibly 1636 and wrote amongst other things something called the ‘Cappriccia Macaronica’. He himself felt important enough to give himself an artist’s name: Magister Stopinus. In a very brief mention on Wikipedia for Santo Stefano he is described as a bad Latin poet. Well I was hoping I could find a nice little quote to introduce this entry, but I could only find this picture of him and his bad hair do.

Anyway, the poetry readings are to be followed by a concert. Hope the rain stays away.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

There's autumn in the air

Yesterday autumn arrived. This is not to say it has turned chilly and cold, but the last two nights we’ve had heavy rain, the first serious rain in 3 months really. There were odd showers before, it’s been threatening occasionally, but nothing that left proper puddles behind until yesterday. During the day yesterday there were a few showers too and drizzle on and off and there is now even a slight chill in the air, which is actually quite refreshing after weeks of constant heat.
Nevertheless we walked over to Arcola yesterday to pick as many ripe tomatoes as possible, before they would be attacked by rot. Made a few more jars of tomato sauce today with it. Above you can see the dark clouds threatening above our village on our way back home.

Today was a beautifully bright and fresh day again and after the rains I thought this should be the ideal mushroom hunting weather, but no luck. We went into the woods and came back with virtually nothing, just one tiny mushroom of unknown provenance. We found some blackberries though as you can see. Soon it’ll be time to collect chestnuts.

I have, lacking any further advice, started making beer from maize and hops. I tried malting it (soaked the maize in water for 3 days, then spreading it out for another 3 days, until it started to sprout) and it worked to an extent, but there was not sufficiently enough sugar produced to turn into beer. So I added a bit of sugar to come to a potential strength of 5% AbV. It’s bubbling away merrily now. The colour of the brew is an odd yellow and it does not smell as good as the real thing in a brewery, but it’s only a small experimental batch, so we’ll just see.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Beer out of maize?

Well the last few days the “Scirocco” wind has been blowing a warm wind north from the shores of Africa and it has a brought a change in the weather at last. As the warm wind meets with cooler air flowing off the Alps it builds up clouds and the odd storm develops. One such storm came down over us on the night from Thursday to Friday and this morning we had a heavy, prolonged shower. All this is making it feel uncomfortably humid and the wind barely helps cooling things down. On the plus side, we haven’t had to water for the last few days.

Being in a period of the waxing moon again and having had some rain to moisten the soils, I sowed some more seeds out on Friday, namely celery, spinach, Tuscan black cabbage, lettuce and fennel. We’re also finding a lot of wild food at the moment, especially blackberries and walnuts. We have made a new discovery on Friday. On our way to Arcola we found a prolific source of wild hops growing up some shrub next to a canal. Just picking up a handful and smelling it you realise where the aroma of good quality beer comes from. So of course I couldn’t resist and we picked a whole bag full to make beer with.

Now I watched the beer-making process many times in breweries and whisky distilleries and I know the theory. Hops are of course only a traditional flavouring and preservative for beer the usual main ingredient being barley, or more precisely barley malt. You obtain barley malt by soaking the barley in water for a few days, then spread it on the malting floor in warmish, light conditions to encourage them to geminate. At this stage the starch inside the grain is turned into fermentable sugar. Once that has happened you arrest the growth by kilning the grain. This is done at a temperature of 50 to 60°C until it is dried and crisp. The result is than ground and finally with the addition of hot water turned into a kind of porridge to dissolve the sugar out of the mash. This would be the time to add your hops as well. The resulting liquid is then fermented to make beer. This in a nutshell is the way to make beer.

Whilst I know all this there is one snag: barley is not easily obtainable around here. In theory it is of course possible to make beer out of any grain. Most notably wheat is used for various speciality beers in Germany and Belgium, rice is routinely used in Asia and at least as a part ingredient in many American beers, in the Garfagnana region of Tuscany a micro brewery produces a beer out of a local and ancient kind of hulled wheat known as “farro” and maize is also used in America and parts of Africa to name but a few examples. However, there was a reason why barley is the best raw material, I just can’t for the life of me think what it was. Of the above mentioned grains, the only one readily available to me here is maize. Farro is grown locally, but expensive. I have unsuccessfully been trying to find anything written on the question whether you treat other grains exactly the same as you would barley. Anybody reading this got any ideas?

In the absence of any further info I decided to experiment anyway and soaked a large bowl of maize (or corn whatever you want to call it) to see if I can’t get it to germinate. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of malted maize. Maybe this is the difference, other grains don’t lend themselves to this treatment. I don’t know. Anyone who can shed light on this, please let me know!